In September of 1765, the controversy over Britain’s Stamp Act was at its peak in America. This Act, which was set to take effect on November 1, placed a tax on paper documents by the purchase of stamps, and impacted a wide variety of items from official court documents to playing cards. It also created admiralty courts, appointed in England and sitting in Halifax, to prosecute violators; admiralty courts, as the name would imply, would typically have jurisdiction over maritime issues, but in this case were to be extended into a purely continental arena, which colonists found threatening.
The Act was passed by Parliament on March 22, 1765, and within months the bureaucratic infrastructure it would require began to take shape in the colonies as individuals were appointed to various positions, including that of Stamp Officer. Jared Ingersoll received this appointment in the Connecticut colony. In the Maryland Gazette of October 10, 1765, reports were made as to the pressure that was exerted upon Mr. Ingersoll to resign his office, which he summarily did.
The report from Hartford, Connecticut states that on Wednesday, September 18, a large party of men on horseback left Eastern Connecticut for New Haven, intent on demanding the resignation of Ingersoll. Stopping along the route to solicit for additional men to bolster their numbers, the group arrived in Branford intending to pass the night there and then continue on in the morning. However, their plans changed when they were informed that Ingersoll was, at that very time, on the road to Hartford to seek the protection of the Assembly and would be in Branford sometime the following day. The riders decided to intercept Ingersoll on the road in the morning, after having kept watch all night so that he might not pass through undetected.
Leaving Branford on Thursday morning, the mounted party crossed paths with Ingersoll near Weathersfield after about an hour’s ride. Announcing their purpose, Ingersoll at first stood his ground and refused to comply, but eventually conceded, and was forced to publicly swear his resignation; he was also forced to say “Liberty and Property” three times, to the delight of the crowd. Probably as part of his ransom, Ingersoll then published an official resignation, which was carried in the Gazette. It was dated September 19, 1765, it read, in part: “I do hereby Promise, that I will never receive any Stamp’d Papers, which may arrive from Europe, in Consequence of an Act lately passed in the Parliament of Great-Britain…”
The impetus for the imposition of new taxes upon the American colonies came primarily from the French and Indian War, and the continued expense of maintaining a British military presence in America thereafter. In 1763, the British government estimated this annual cost to be ₤224,904, but some individual members of Parliament believed that the figure would be closer to ₤400,000. Twenty battalions, comprised of over 10,000 soldiers were allotted for North America in 1764, and by 1765, the year of the Stamp Act, the actual costs of paying and provisioning those battalions had risen to ₤334,636. This figure represented nearly 4% of the entire English national budget, and many in Britain resented what they considered to be the tax-haven of America, and American resistance to paying what many English considered the colonies’ “fair share.”
Prime Minister George Grenville's secretary to the Treasury, Thomas Whately, dismissed colonial complaints about taxation by noting that the money would be spent in America for its own defense; however, this redistribution would be uneven at best, as troops tended to concentrate only at certain points in a vast geographic landscape. Most colonies paying taxes would not, in fact, receive the benefits of their recirculation by the troops.
In conjunction with this resentment of American views on taxation there was a renewed belief in the subordinate position of the colonies as part of the British Empire as a whole. Many began to revisit the mercantilist idea that colonies existed to benefit the mother country by supplying raw materials and a market for finished goods. This was considered to be a natural consequence of the demographics: America had much land for agriculture, England had little; England had concentrated masses of people to work in manufactures, America’s population was thin and dispersed.
Whately also argued that colonial trade could not be allowed to exist outside of the British Empire, as it would undermine the reason that colonies are created in the first place. The colonies had long defied the Acts of Trade and Navigation through almost open acts of smuggling, which Whately saw as a direct threat to the very connection of England to her colonies. He estimated that only 10% of tea consumed in America was imported legally and that over ₤700,000 worth of smuggled goods made their way into Britain’s North American colonies annually. Their defiance, he wrote,
- …is become a much more alarming circumstance, than that increase of wealth, people, and territory, which raises apprehensions in many persons that the colonies may break off their connection with Great Britain: that connection is actually broken already, wherever the Acts of Navigation are disregarded; and for so much of their trade as is thereby diverted from its proper channel, they are no longer British colonies, but colonies of the countries they trade to...The extent of this commerce... cannot be certainly known; but that it is now carried to a dangerous excess, is an indisputable fact.
In was in this atmosphere of resentment and concern that England set out to reestablish both fiduciary control of the American colonies and to enforce a sense of connection to the British Empire through the creation of new taxes, such as the Stamp Act of 1765.
In the summer of 1765, England was largely unprepared for the ferociousness of American opposition to the Act. No British regular army troops were stationed in Boston, and they could not be sent there without weakening the only recently secured western frontier, in the opinion of the commander in chief of the army in America, General Thomas Gage. Speaking of his forces, Gage wrote, "…they are scattered and divided, over this vast Continent, and that very few could be collected in Case of sudden Emergencys, in any part, except in Canada.” When the people rose up against the new tax, even going so far as to attack the home of Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Hutchinson, it was left to the town’s gentry to patrol the streets. According to Francis Bernard, the Governor of Massachusetts, "a War of plunder, of general levelling and taking away the distinction of rich and poor," had narrowly been averted. Bernard’s words betray the class divisions that typified the varying American responses to unhappiness with English colonial policy – commoners threatened the social structure with their menacing behavior, while the gentry were engaged in polite public policy debates, all the while attempting to restrain, as best they could, the ill temper of the “rabble.”
Bernard, like many royal functionaries, was left to hope that the disaffected colonists would give way when, as he expected, the bureaucracy of the colony was forced to close due to resistance to the Act. "A nearer and fuller prospect of the Anarchy and Confusion which must take place when the Courts of Justice and public offices are shut up, as they must be on the first of November unless Stamps are allowed to be used." In short, he thought that the colonists would come to their senses and submit to British taxation once they got a chance to experience the alternative, which he saw as nothing short of “anarchy.” The key to the confidence of British officials was the law’s provision that after November 1, 1765, court documents would have to be stamped to be legally binding, and they could not imagine any colonist of means willingly surrendering the mechanisms of an orderly society. Doubtless, they were surprised when this did not occur.
In Boston, there were definite signs that the colonists’ anger was rising as the deadline approached. On August 14, a large elm tree near the town common was adorned with the effigy of the stamp official, Andrew Oliver; next to it dangled a large boot representing the First Lord of the Treasury, Lord Bute. A raucous crowd of townspeople and farmers were soon crowded around the tree to mock the effigy and to revel in defiance of England. As the day drew to a close, the effigies were retrieved from the tree, encased in coffins and paraded through the city by cheering throngs, reported to be in the thousands, who paused only to burn a building they incorrectly believed to be the Stamp Office. Reaching Oliver’s home, the mob launched stones, bricks and other missiles through the windows, and concluded the day’s festivities by hanging and beheading Oliver’s effigy before setting it to the torch. The next day, not surprisingly, Andrew Oliver resigned.
It was much the same in other colonies. New York Stamp Tax Official James McEvers resigned shortly after hearing of Olivers’ fate. In Maryland, Zachariah Hood’s new warehouse was immolated and he was forced to flee the colony. In Newport, Rhode Island, after marching through the streets, a crowd constructed a gallows from which they suspended the effigy of "Stampman." On one post of the gallows they posted these lyrics:
The gentry, with communicative access to the press and to those in government, could content themselves with impassioned pleas and reasoned arguments about the undue burden that the Act placed upon Americans. Benjamin Franklin, agent for the Pennsylvania colony in addition to being Deputy Postmaster General in North America, wrote, "When any Tax for America is propos'd in your Parliament, how are you to know that we are not already tax'd as much as we can bear? If a Tax is propos'd with us, how dare we venture to lay it, as the next Ship perhaps may bring us an Account of some heavy Tax impos'd by you." In October of 1765, John Adams, writing under the pen name of “Humphrey Ploughjogger” in the Boston Gazette, mocked Governor Bernard’s predictions of anarchy. Commoners, lacking the same ability to address those in power, were forced to look elsewhere to vent their growing anger, and often this anger spilled over into public displays and acts of personal intimidation.
- Those Blessings our Fathers obtain'd by their blood, We are justly oblig'd as their Sons to make good; All internal Taxes let us then nobly spurn, These Effigies first-next the Stamp Paper burn.
Events of the sort reported by the Maryland Gazette in October of 1765 were common during that summer and fall, as ordinary colonists, having no outlet for their opposition to the impending Stamp Act, sought to use what weapons they had at their disposal to force change in British policy toward the colonies. While they lacked the power and access of the gentry, what they did have was the threat of violence and the power of their numbers, and they deployed these assets against specific targets to achieve their aims. That this behavior might threaten class distinctions and social order mattered not to them.
In Connecticut that September, the protesters’ numbers grew as they traveled across the colony in search of Jared Ingersoll, and upon locating him, the explicit threat of violence was used to compel him to give up his lucrative government post. These angry colonists were following a pattern that had been established in the previous weeks by their peers across British North America. It was a pattern that would be repeated in the coming years as England variously imposed and repealed parliamentary acts, and would ultimately lead the colonists to open rebellion against their mother country.